Joined: 25 October 2011
Look what 'varshapan' made for this fic!! Isn't it awesome??? I am so very touched- thank you dear!! This chapter is dedicated to you, and to 'saucechips', who also made a beautiful banner (available on the first page, and on pg. 110). Thank you guys sooo much! You're absolute sweethearts, you are!
I owe you all a huge, big, massive apology for the shameful delays in updating this fic. I would like to assure you all that I would NEVER abandon this fic- it's my first, and is very special to me in many ways. I've learnt a lot through it, while writing it and met some wonderful people through it too. I don't want this to sound like an excuse, but honestly, 2013 and the later half of 2012 were full of changes and adapting, changes and adapting, getting jobs, and uni-apps and then moving and having to fend for myself...real life took precedence over fiction and I had to step away from my ongoing fics because frankly, I could not have continued in that frame of mind. To everyone I frustrated with the delay- I am so, so sorry. I really am. To everyone who stayed with this fic for so long- thank you. So much. You guys have no idea how much you have helped in bolstering my confidence and keeping me going. I owe you everything.
Without further ado, lets get on with it- a can of Pringles and several glasses of Pepsi went into the making of this chapter, so I hope it wasn't all worthless. I feel a bit...rusty, writing this after so long :s Please let me know if you feel this could do with some changing.
Chapter Forty Eight
Khushi had read once, somewhere, that when you love someone, and you had nothing to give, you would still give them love.
It would explain why, when she had spied him stepping out of his four-wheeler, and caught sight of the shadows stained and dyed into the tired lines of his face- caught him looking so broken, shattered and so fragile that he might crack before her eyes, that she found her feet swiftly breaching the distance between the veranda and front gate, and before either of them could consider what was happening, she had wrapped her arms around him.
Holding him together so he would not fall apart.
Her heart slammed bodily into her chest wall, and each beat was painful, but at least it was wholesome. At least they weren't mere echoes of a heartbeat- the type of sound that bounces back to you in an empty room, and only enhances your sense of loneliness.
The type she had had to endure all of last night, assaulted by the pain, by the blame he was inflicting upon himself, and too far away to do anything about it.
Over that erratic thudding, and over the equally erratic clatter, in perfect harmony with hers, now pressed to her ear, she made out first his sudden, surprised intake of breath as her body collided into his- and then the fatigue-heavy sigh that ruffled some of the hair against her crown, its warmth tickling her scalp a little.
And then his arms had belted their way around her too, holding her close, and she finally felt complete.
"Are you okay?" she mumbled into the soft cashmere of the sweater he'd chosen to wear today, soaked deliciously in the scent of his cologne and him.
"Yes," His answer was equally muffled. The single word was mouthed into her hair, and it was the movement of his lips that conveyed it to her rather than the actual sound itself.
A sad, forlorn smile quivered, like the weak reflection of sunlight on troubled, turbulent water, against her lips before she softly accused, "Liar."
His chuckle reverberated through her body, and somehow the movement seemed to loosen the emotions that had become jammed in all their excess within her- the worry, the apprehension, the exhaustion, and beneath it all the somewhat selfish feeling that none of this was fair.
She pulled herself out of his embrace somewhat, but not entirely- her arms lingered possessively swathed about him, and his hooked round her waist as though to impede any further retreat. But that was alright- all she had wanted to do was peer into his face, watch his eyes.
And it broke her heart to see the bottled, repressed anguish there. The previous night, and all that it had entailed, had taken a toll that had imprinted itself all over him- he looked as though he had fought a battle single-handed and unarmed, and now that he had emerged at the end of it, there was no telling whether he had won or lost.
But that was always the case- win or lose, the scattering of wounds and bruises over battle-weary soldiers were never different; the victorious and the defeated could never be told apart. Hurt and pain and fear and destruction were inevitable, and what was frightening was the fact that battles were but chapters in books- one page in a war made up of hundreds that might tip the fortune of everyone involved.
Winners could become losers in the wink of an eye.
And though they had won a battle yesterday- the battle they had been fighting ever since they had met one another, against each other and against themselves- the war was yet to end.
And it was not fair.
It was like a hiccup that had gotten stuck in her windpipe, and the queasiness jolted tears into her eyes that she dared not let him see. She quickly burrowed herself back into his encompassing warmth, surreptitiously ducking her face away from his searching gaze.
"I missed you," she found herself garbling instead, the embarrassment-laced words slipping awkwardly off her tongue as her cheek, pressed tight into his chest, heated at her confession.
It was not much, but once again it was all she could offer him just then, to water down the wretchedness and apprehension saturated into the circumstances of their meeting- so different from the day before.
In hindsight, yesterday had almost felt like a dream.
But Khushi held no grudges, felt not regret- because it was a dream that he had made come true, and she would cherish it forever.
A part of her, a part possibly still giddy on the euphoric aftermath of that dream, half-wondered if he would return those words to her.
Expected him to, even.
So when he answered, "I knew you would" instead, it had her wrenching herself out of his grip to stare incredulously at his face.
At the tilt to his lips that, despite the frayed edges of tiredness evident in his demeanour, held a definite hint of mischief.
Her dumbfounded question must have shown on her face, because he elaborated, "I'm assuming it worked after all- that's what this is for, right?"
And with that he had pinched the end of the dupatta she'd draped over her neck and collarbone, and without giving her another second to think, plucked it partially off.
The cool, early morning breeze tickled over the very spot that Khushi had decided to don salwar-kameez today to conceal- and as her mortified stare met his unapologetically wicked ones, glinting with devilish mirth as boiling blood almost burnt her skin to cinders, memories of the previous afternoon, when he had had her sandwiched between himself and his car, and vowed to her that he would make her miss him, assailed her.
Bombarded her with such force he might have run her over with his four-wheeler itself.
A flurry of sensation that vacillated between feeling scandalised and abashed knocked her into confusion- her fingers scrabbled to rip her dupatta back in place, her feet tripped backward, desperate to get herself out of the now scorching, sweltering heat pervading the space between them.
But her husband, still revelling in his triumph, was not done with her yet.
One deft arm latched itself about her waist and snagged her back; the other clutched her dupatta and her hasty, clumsy attempts to set it right.
If she had not been so frazzled, she might have even found it nostalgic- and not just because of yesterday.
But then his mouth was descending against the nape of her neck, just as it had before.
Stares exploded behind her eye lids, fire-water singed through her veins, and her heart was stunned into immovability.
And there was heat and there was pleasure and there was a tiny little voice shrieking and wailing just as it had the first time that they should not be doing this and that someone might see them...but the rest of her had gone numb, or was too overwrought from the sensation, and it was only when he removed the scorching touch of his lips, pressed against her flesh and sending dancing sparks that titillated and devastated her every nerve, and whispered against her ear, "Breathe," that she obeyed his hoarse, uneven command, and the breath she had been holding unbeknownst to herself had come bursting out.
One by one, seconds snuck past them, and they stood frozen just like that- puffs of warm air sailing past the whorls of her ear, her own feverish, ragged breaths sifting through his hairline.
And then he had drawn back again, the mischief more defined, his lopsided smirk more opaque, the glint to his eye brighter as he took in her dazed features, and a dark flush tinting his cheekbones.
"Yup, definitely works", he quipped cheekily, and his smirk crept so close to an actual grin that nervous butterflies invaded her gut with a vengeance and stormed aggressively all over the place, leaving her flustered, stupefied and more confused than ever.
"Y-you," she started weakly, her obvious disorientation only cranking his humour up as he regarded her, amusement clear and glittering in honey-gold orbs, and fanning the embers of ire swiftly growing into flames, "You- you- you're such a- such a-"
"Jalebi?" her husband offered, obviously enjoying himself very much.
Recalling the very same conversation that had landed her in this...this...predicament the day before only made matters worse. Khushi could swear that the roots of her hair must be smoking by now, she could feel herself blushing so hard.
"Don't look so happy!" she chastised severely, at a loss to come up with anything else, and conscious of the vague taste of deja vu the rebuke left on her tongue- Have I said that to him before?
"Why shouldn't I be?" he returned with a shrug, his mouth doing that thing it did and curving up one cheek, the mere sight doing health-hazarding things to her pulse, "It's an honour to be compared to the sweet my wife loves the most in the world-"
Khushi scoffed, furiously tugging her dupatta out of his now lose grip and throwing it over her shoulder, clutching the ends as though her life depended on it, "Well it was my mistake comparing you to them in the first place! You are- you are- you're- a Laad Governor, that's what!"
And as she seethed and fumed, egged on by the arch of his eyebrow and none-too-subtle tremble against the line of his lips, he did the unexpected.
He laid a hand atop her head, and tipped his own just a little to the side, and watched her- studied her, absorbed her with his stare, which mellowed from its impish glimmers to something that was stiller, calmer, but fathomless. The humour dripped down his face, like raindrops chasing themselves down glass-panes, and as some of her own irascibility was washed off in the process, he murmured to her, the residue of a smile not yet gone from his lips, "And you're my dragonfly."
She watched the flecks of hazelnut speckling amber in his eyes mist a little, and she could just tell that he was thinking back to that rain-soaked afternoon, punctuated by the clatter of hailstones and distant rumbles of thunder, of fractured coffee-tables and cuts on hands, of steaming cups of tea and bangles and letters and a lone dragonfly that had made her run to him in fear.
She remembered when she how she had told him off that day too, using those same words as she had today.
How that afternoon had changed so much for them- how that afternoon had been another battle in this war that was dragging on for too long.
"I don't..." he said to her thickly, and so quietly that, were it not for the fact that they were standing in near isolation, save for the early-morning birds hopping from branch to branch overhead and practising their songs, she would have had trouble hearing him, "I don't want to have to chase anymore..."
She recollected what she'd had to say about dragonflies, and how he had somehow deemed them synonymous to her... One minute they're here, next minute there, next minute gone...That's how I feel, anyway...Because one minute you'll be next to me, next minute you'll have run off so fast I wouldn't even know, and before you know it, you're somewhere else entirely...I have to tell you, I really have my work cut out for me, staying on my toes all the time to keep up with you-
He'd said all that in jest that day, said it playfully, said it to tease.
Today though there was something...unstable and vulnerable, something desperate, beneath his static form and cryptic words, and that unreadable look that had seeped into his features and was somewhere between yearning and guardedness.
That fear, the anxiety that had sent her dashing toward him, goaded on by the need to comfort him, support him in any way she could- that hiccup that had gotten stuck in her windpipe and seemed to be expanding outward, clogging her air, stifling her heartbeats, and causing the agony to leak out her eyes, returned once more.
But now was not the time to cower- now was not the time to dawdle and dwell in weaknesses and in fear and in the unfairness of it all.
She raised both her hands, her palms chilled from the cool breeze she had been standing in, waiting for him long before the time they had agreed upon, too restless and impatient to remain indoors. With these, she gripped his much larger hand, shifting its sheltering, protective weight off her head and grasping it, hard.
With fierce determination and all the earnestness she possessed, she looked him in the eye, and willed herself to project how much she meant what she was about to say, and willed him to believe in her. What they were about to do was no different than stepping on cracked ice- they would have to be careful, they would have to be tactful, they would have to manoeuvre around the fissures in the surface, because one wrong move, one foot in the wrong place, and the thin ice would rupture and they would both be plunged into freezing, murderously cold water, with no lifeline to pull themselves out.
And though she was terrified, though she had been consumed by the ever-present dread, hanging on her shoulder like her personal omen, because if they lost this battle they would lose the war- despite all of that, she was going to stand by him and hold his hand, and she would take blows in his stead whether he liked it or not, because just as he had teased her and played with her and angered her on purpose to quell some of her distress, she wanted, needed, had to do the same for him.
Whatever it took.
Whether Di believed her or not, whether she blamed her or not, she would not allow Arnavji to go into this alone.
"I promised I would stand by you, Arnavji," Khushi reminded him, solemnly, soberly, watching the conflict joust back and forth as his fingers closed round the hands clasped about his, "And that means I am never leaving. Never. I don't know what might happen today but...we are going through this together, and all I'm asking is that you hold my hand, because no matter happens now...I won't let go of yours."
Aman had already seen the list he had been emailed the moment the beep had sounded on his cell-phone, and he had read the notification indicating its sender.
Regardless, despite the sleep clinging to his lashes and his wife's groggy inquiries about what had happened and what he was doing, Aman willed himself to be alert as he switched his laptop on, tapping impatient fingers next to the track-pad as the interface blinked to life, and then he was punching in the keys of his password and rushing to log on to his email on the bigger screen.
Scrolling through the item in question twice, thrice, four times, combing through it with furrowed brows and narrowed eyes, did not change the result.
The startling, baffling, bizarre conclusion he had thought he had mistaken when he had first read the contents of this newest development.
And then he was hitting buttons again, only this time on his phone.
The interlude before he pressed the call button and the answering voice cut the dial-tone short was not long enough to let Aman even begin to phrase his newest discovery- and below it all was the nervous uncertainty of how it may be construed. What it might mean.
Throwing caution to the winds, Aman took a leap of faith and prayed for the best.
"Sir...the call-list for Anjali Ma'am's sim-card that you told me look into...I just got back the list and- there's something strange here, sir."
Arnav's foot found the brake, and the car jerked to a stop. From the passenger seat Khushi yelped a little in alarm, whipping round to face him in concern.
"What happened?" she mouthed.
His head was heavy and woollen, the consequence of a troubled night on too little sleep, and the trepidation embellishing the task at hand did little to help matters.
But even though he was not at the top of his game, and even though he had been plagued by the unsettling notion of driving down a blind alley as he guided them homeward, Arnav could still spot the discrepancies- the glaring, ragged holes ripped into fact he had assumed whole and complete- gaping back at him.
Khushi was tugging at his sleeve now, her concern morphing into full-blown fear across her pale features.
Just stand by me, ok? And I'll stand by you.
The words that had wrapped round him like blankets in the cold, glued his sanity together despite the blows it had taken, came back to him and guided his actions.
He flicked the phone on loud-speaker.
Tersely, tense with what he was about to hear, about the implications of it all, he bade, "Repeat what you just said, Aman."
"Ah- yes, sir," Came the slightly slurred voice of his righthand-man, and Khushi's confused stare flickered between Arnav and the phone, "I got back the call-list for Anjali Ma'am's number but- but there have been no unknown numbers on that list, outgoing or incoming, for the whole of this last week. Except...except for last night- or early this morning. Around 2 a.m."
His ears were ringing. "Incoming or outgoing."
There was a pause. "Outgoing, sir."
"Have you looked into whose number that is?"
"They are looking into it now, Sir...I'm expecting the results any minute-"
"The landline? What about the landline, are there any-"
"I checked the landline calls too, Sir...but there haven't been any that matched the number Khushi Ma'am received the call from..."
Khushi's eyes, wide and startled, flew up to him at the mention of her name, and Arnav found himself staring back, lost.
The ringing in his ears was getting worse- it was leaking into the caverns of his skulls and growing louder, more and more agitated, and it had begun to resonate down the rest of his body- a restless, gripping uneasiness dripping into his pores.
"We would have realised, if he'd called home," Khushi mumbled to him, leaning closer and lowering her voice as though not keen to let Aman overhear, "Someone would have said something..."
Arnav found himself nodding absently, before addressing the voice on the phone again, "What about Shyam's number? Have there been any calls from that?"
"No, sir..." Aman sounded puzzled, and wholly reluctant to be relaying the news he was having to, "It seems that...there was one or two attempts by Anjali Ma'am to reach him, but none of those calls connected."
Again he felt the pull of Khushi's eyes on him, and he could tell from the way she was biting into her lip and blinking furiously, frown crinkling her forehead, that she was thinking about the attempt Di had made to call Shyam, at Khushi's insistence, the day they had gone to the hospital with the dual intention of seeing Bauji and having Di's check-up done. She had noticed something off, something unusual, on that day itself...and she had called him up, and they'd sat in this car, in the rain, talking about it...
Suddenly feeling as though he had just come home to find things had been moved around while he'd been gone, Arnav stared blankly at his phone for a long while, before Khushi's small hand barely managed to close around his wrist. The warmth of her touch, now that they were out of the wind, cleared a little of the fog- he drew in a slow, trembling breath before speaking again. "Thanks, Aman. Keep me posted."
"Yes, sir," came the curt response, and then the line clicked off.
Arnav's head was swimming.
He hadn't called her...he hadn't called her...but she had called him, or at least tried to...but she'd been unsuccessful...
But then...but then...Arnav remembered, word for word, what Di had said that evening, about Shyam getting too caught up in work...about returning in a few days...there had been no ifs' or buts', just what he had swallowed as plain facts and then worked to take countermeasures but this...
"That number," he grunted shakily, feverishly scouring through the mail Aman had forwarded to him for his perusal, "that last number she had dialled...who was that for, what could that be?"
He had found it, had been a blink short of calling it without any idea who he expected to pick up and what he expected to say, but then Khushi's hand was stalling him again.
He looked up, and caught her steady, serious gaze.
"Call her," she said, somehow clement even as everything else was whipped up in an unruly tornado of disorder...Just stand by me, ok? And I'll stand by you... "Call her and ask her now."
The rim of her morning cup of tea had barely grazed her lip before she was settling it down on her saucer again, a little more sharply than she had intended.
"I thought she was with you, Chote!" Nani was upright in her armchair again, the quiet peace she had decided to indulge in by herself before going down to breakfast shredded down and scattered into so many particles, "Hari Prakash said he had seen you leaving, and that he did not find Anjali bitiya either- I thought you might have taken her to the mandir-"
"The mandir?" her grandson's rejoinder was sharp and abrupt, and the urgency of it stoked her anxiety higher.
"Yes," Nani told him, pushing herself to her feet and hobbling toward the door, her limbs a little stiff from the chill in the air this morning, "She had mentioned last evening when she came home that she wanted to go to the mandir again in the morning...she even went to bed early because she said she would rest well for it..."
They had had to send Anjali's dinner to her room, when she had not emerged after several summons and refused to eat, saying she did not have the appetite. Come to think of it...she had barely stepped out of her room save for the few minutes she'd spent speaking to them before heading straight to bed when she had come home yesterday...
There was silence for a minute on the other end, and Nani ventured, "Have you tried her phone?"
"Yes...but it's switched off." The fretting edge was sharp and pointed in his voice, and Nani could not blame him. This was not simply a case of Chote's characteristic protectiveness over his sister; Anjali, in her state, should not even be out, let alone by herself and this early in the day...
"The driver," Nani said suddenly, as the thought struck her, "She might have called the driver and gone with him!"
The man grunted in annoyance as the loud beeping of his phone dissipated the pleasantly drowsy haze that had descended over him. Irritated, and with a bitter barb on his tongue aimed at whoever had been rude enough to prevent the nice nap he had been planning on stealing, hefted his phone screen before his eyes.
Fortunately for him, this turned out to be a wise move, because the caller ID had him sitting up and jamming his kneecap into the steering-wheel in the process in the blink of an eye, all traces of sleep gone.
"Arnav Sir! Good morning, Sir!...Anjali Ma'am? Yes sir, she had said she would need the car last night...no sir, she's not in the car right now...where are we? Uh...we're at the police station, sir."
Link to Next Thread - Thread 4
I'm estimating two-three more chapters to the end...and I am determined to get there ASAP. Please let me know if you'd like updates of this, NYR or Cul-de-sac next?
And oh...please comment? Pretty please? They're what encourage me the most to write!!
THANK YOU SO MUCH for the constant love and support you guys have given this story- I would not be here without you, and neither would this story! I am overwhelmed, literally.
The opening sentence is drawn from the quote: "If you loved someone, you loved him, and when you had nothing else to give, you still gave him love." from the novel 1984, by George Orwell. One of the most disturbing books I've ever read, but that phrase really resonated with me, to the point I wrote it down in my diary :P
I reserve all rights over this work of fiction and request readers do not reproduce/copy/modify it elsewhere and/or claim credit.
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